I was out with friends in the Little Rann of Kutch on 18th Jan 2016, exploring the sanctuary for Asiatic wild asses and birds, when we came across this beautiful lone Nilgai (Indian Antelope) standing perfectly still. It was a great photo-op. As I zoomed in I noticed its eyes were focused at a point somewhere behind us. Thinking it odd, we took our shots and moved on. Before we knew it the Nilgai turned around and started sprinting away with two dogs in hot pursuit. Very soon a third dog joined the hunt. The chase continued for a quite a while. The antelope was tiring but the dogs looked like they would go on forever. As much as I love dogs, I mentally rooted for the Nilgai.We didn’t quite expect to see wild dogs or a hunt. I did a second take when I realized these were strays. The sanctuary fringes a village. Never before have I seen strays attack wildlife. There was nothing friendly or domestic about these dogs. They were plain wild. There was something wrong with the whole scenario. It wasn’t the same as watching a wild animal hunting another wild animal!
We kept our eyes on the animals till they disappeared from sight. What happened to the Nilgai? I’ll never know but I’m beginning to think something more needs to be done with managing strays. The incidents of humans being attacked by strays are multiplying. Now they seem to have found new hunting grounds.
In fact, it’s all blah. I was invited to Dunda village (Uttarakhand, India) by a colleague who heads ‘Community Engagement’ through the school I work for. These service projects, a collaboration between a hospital, an NGO and my school is a mutually beneficial arrangement between villages and us; mostly, providing opportunities to our students; exposing and sensitizing them to village life, actively engaging them in bringing about change, and hopefully impacting them for life.
Most of these projects are student-driven. They are instrumental in replacing destroyed irrigation systems, roofs, in some cases, houses and providing employment. Besides providing training in revival of more eco-friendly farming, animal husbandry, poultry farming, construction techniques and use of poly houses, building a brand new primary school, creating sand-based water filters and benefiting lives in other small ways. But this post isn’t what is being done and planned for the village but it’s about my undoing!
The familiarization trip in a glossed-over-by-rain landscape was a great out of office experience. The sound of gushing waterfalls and paddy fields were a sight for sore eyes. In spite of all the green cover we could see where last year’s landslides had covered up fields with rocks and rubble, devastated irrigation channels overnight destroyed the livelihood of several villagers.
I always thought it was impossible to get two neighbouring villages to agree on anything.
There were 2 villages gathered under one roof that day, representing around 75 families. Though voicing their concerns rather rambunctiously at first, they simmered down to discussing and making decisions on their own.
I believed a woman has no voice in an Indian village
The head of the village/gram pradan who is a young woman chaired the meeting while lots of other women attended. They are no less vocal than their menfolk. I found out just how hard their lives are; even basic necessities like sanitary napkins are beyond their reach, making it almost impossible to venture too far from home when they’re menstruating. Plans are on to teach them to make low-cost yet hygienic and eco-friendly sanitary napkins. The younger girls, like all young girls, aspire for more. “English-coaching” and tailoring skills are part of their bucket list.
I was of the opinion that the ‘caste system’ in villages is set in stone
What really made me sit up and take notice was the fact that these villagers whose lives are steeped and driven by caste equations were nonchalantly nodding their heads in agreement when it came to the ‘right’ to education. They promised us that the new primary school would be open to any child from Dunda and the neighbouring villages.
Was it the collaboration between the facilitators that in turn triggered the collaboration between the villagers? I will never know for sure but it was rather unexpected to see them take a common stand. Perhaps once in a while one needs to visit a village to look at life afresh.
Considering I live in Mussoorie, it sounds a bit irrational that I should seek another hilltop to escape to; but there’s something to be said for wanting to get away from it all and I find Ranikhet is the place for me. Here’s why.
1. There aren’t many places on earth I can see the Himalayan range from Bandarpunch in the Garhwal, spanning across Trishul, Nandadevi, Panchaculi, in Kumaon, all the way to Apa Nampa in Nepal. After a good dousing of rain, the clouds settle and the air gets wafer-crisp. That’s when the peaks start revealing themselves. I can’t begin to describe how dramatically the colour of the setting sun sets the ice-cream peaks aflame. Come September, right through February, you can see the whole range, dawn to dusk. Imagine that! It’s reason enough for me!
2. Connectivity is erratic. Which turns out to be a good thing since the idea is to switch off from the everyday onslaught of data. Going to Ranikhet feels like checking into a spa where without paying spa rates. With the exception of my camera, I travel light into Ranikhet and feel better for it when I leave.
3. I can enjoy the simplicity of pastoral scenes that are becoming rarer by the day. I know I’m in Ranikhet when I see women carrying enormous piles of grass on their heads and sickles in their waistband. Or visit smoky tea shops where the tea and ‘fen’ taste better for reasons I can’t quite pin down. I love seeing village girls neatly turned out in school uniforms, their hair plaited with red ribbons, cheerfully walking miles, to school. I enjoy the sound of cowbells as much as I like chatting with locals who treat me like an old friend even time I visit.
4. Wildlife comes to me. I don’t have to pay an arm and a leg to enjoy nature. Jackals, foxes, martens, Sambar, Barking deer and Serows, pheasants and leopard have literally crossed my path. As a nature lover, I can’t help but spew rhetoric about being awakened by the sweet melody of whistling thrushes on my rooftop. Or sipping chai in my garden watching the sunlight bounce off the iridescent head of the Flowerpecker. Or listening to the Francolin clearing his throat before every call. And hearing a carpenter drill only to discover it’s a Yellow-naped woodpecker. Or check out the latest leopard kill on the golf course. And seeing a jackal and a Steppe eagle soaking in the winter sun side by side! Or following butterflies that look so exotic, it’s a miracle they aren’t extinct. Need I go on?
5. There is no home delivery. No Mc Donalds, Pizza Hut, or Café Coffe Day outlets here as yet. Definitely no malls. And yes, I’m grateful for the “unspoiled ” flavour of the place. There are any number of restaurants and a proper market; so one won’t starve for want of sustenance. For those of us who have homes here, our small soirees end long before city-wallas begin their nightlife.
6. Every house has a fruit tree, flowering pots or a vegetable patch. It could be the humble geranium in a rusty tin or the ‘kaddu’ drying on the rooftop; they make Ranikhet homely.
7. Not too many tourists. Funnily enough some of the reasons I love Ranikhet are the reasons why it’s not a popular holiday destination. Lucky for me!